Northern Ireland electoral registration canvass 2021

Summary

This report looks at how the canvass was run, what the register of electors looks like at the end of the canvass, and what lessons can be learned for the future.

Across the summer and autumn of 2021, a full canvass of electors took place in Northern Ireland. A canvass must take place at least once every 10 years. During the canvass period, every eligible elector is required to apply to register to vote – even if they are already registered. The last canvass before this one was in 2013; the next is scheduled for 2030, and then in every tenth year following that.

The canvass started on 1 July 2021 and ran until the revised electoral register was published by the Chief Electoral Officer on 1 December 2021. It contained a total of 1,368,091 entries, representing approximately 93% of the eligible electorate.

It is a significant achievement that the electoral register is the largest ever recorded in Northern Ireland, with over 1.36 million people registered to vote. However the canvass in its current format is not an efficient tool for helping to maintain an accurate and complete electoral register - both for the Chief Electoral Officer and for electors. As such we recommend that the Government should reform the canvass and wider electoral registration process in Northern Ireland.

Table: Percentage registration rate per constituency (17+)

Key findings - part 2

The estimated registration rate at constituency and local authority level masks some more significant variation at ward level. By ward, the percentage of the electorate estimated to be registered varies from approximately 31.1% in the Botanic ward in Belfast South to 108.4% in the Ballycolman ward in the West Tyrone constituency.

There are 46 wards where the estimated registration rate is over 100% and this highlights the limitations of this method of calculating registration rates. The population figures provided by the 2011 census are estimates and may over- or understate the true population from area to area. However, while the specific percentage registered figure should be treated with caution, the figures are useful in illustrating the overall range.

Age profile

Data held on electors’ dates of birth allow for an analysis of the age profile of the registered electorate. As figure 3 shows, consistent with previous research, levels of registration generally increase with age.

As with other analysis in this report, the use of estimated population figures means that some percentages are greater than 100%. Therefore the percentages should be treated with caution and are most useful for illustrating a trend, not establishing specific levels of registration.

Figure 3: Percentage registration rate by age
Bar chart showing percentage registration rate by age

Table: Percentage registration rate by age

Key findings - part 3

While the trend is similar to previous findings it is worth noting that the estimated levels of registration are higher for many age bands than those seen after the 2013 canvass. For example, in 2013 the estimated registration rate only rose above 80% at age 30 and above. Similarly, registration levels of 90%+ were seen among the 50+ age groups in 2013 compared to 35+ in 2021.

However, the estimated level of registration for the under 20s was higher in 2013 (64%) than we see in 2021 (57%).

Retained and removed electors

The number of retained electors, as a proportion of the 1 December electorate, also varied across constituencies. The largest proportions were retained in the Belfast West and Foyle constituencies with 11% and 10.8% retained. The smallest proportions were in Lagan Valley and East Antrim with 6.2% and 6.5% retained respectively. At ward level, there were two wards where 20% of the December 2021 register were retained – Botanic ward in Belfast South and Ballysaggart in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

There was also variation in the proportions removed from the register with the largest proportion removed in Belfast South (6.2% of the July 2021 register) and the smallest in Mid Ulster (2.6%). In five wards (three in Belfast South) more than 10% of the July 2021 register was removed when the December 2021 register was published. This likely reflects the higher population movement in these areas.

The overall split between retained and removed non-responders was 70% to 30% but this was different for EU citizens where the split was 60% retained and 40% removed. The difference could likely be the result of less data being held on EU citizens some of whom may be only temporarily resident in Northern Ireland.